“The war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”
– Charles Darwin (1859)
When Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution by natural selection in his book On the Origin of Species (1859), he introduced one of the most important scientific ideas of all time. In the book, to answer the “why” of evolution of species, Darwin stated facts and inferences about “natural selection” which asserts that only those species continue to exist who have better adaptability to the natural conditions. He believed organisms having features most suited to the limited environmental resources would continue to survive and the others would eventually die away.
He further said that different species are born when there is artificial selection of one mating partner over another. The concepts of genes and speciation was illustrated by Darwin. In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Darwin demonstrated the continuity between animal and human behaviour. He spoke about the morals, emotions and behaviour of humans and animals.
Soon after the Darwinian theory of natural evolution aroused widespread interest, sociologists like Herbert Spencer, Thomas Malthus and Francis Galton began their study on how Darwin’s principles can be interpreted to explain the social, political and economic development of humans. In late 19th century concepts such as “Survival of the fittest” and “Struggle for existence” were proposed that got loosely generalised into the idea called Social Darwinism.
The basic tenets of Social Darwinism:
- Wealth, social status and property indicated superiority of humans.
- Poor people were considered inferior and they were supposed to be dominated by the richer people.
Social Darwinism supported the idea of laissez-faire doctrine and has been linked to promotion of the idea that the White European was superior and destined to conquer, civilize and dominate rest of the world. At its worst the theory has been echoed to support the Holocaust by Nazis, extermination of the indigenous inhabitants in Australia and rampant racism against the blacks in America. It has been widely criticized for being an attempt to negate social reforms and pseudo-scientifically justify imperialism, capitalism and racism.
The connection of the ideas
While it is widely regarded that Darwin did not promote biological superiority, some of his suggestions indicated his peripheral support for the dominance of the strong over the weak. In one of his propositions in The Descent of Man, Darwin quoted that the help which we give to the “helpless” is nothing but the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as a part of “human Social instinct.” Darwin’s ideas, on some level, supported the concept that human competition resulted in the formation of stronger groups and elimination of the weaker ones.
On a surface level, the theories seem different in their principles. Nature is accepted to be kill-or-perish system where the strong and the best suited survive out-live the weak, as per the theory of evolution. On the other hand according to Social Darwinism, those with strength (economic, physical, technological) flourish and those without are destined for extinction. But a question that arises is if an accepted nature’s law cannot be extended to society, which is wrong? Evolution? Or Society? To an extent, Darwin’s statements were inconsistent in his second book compared to what he had said about evolution in the first. He suggested that development of “moral” qualities depends more on things like habit, instruction, and even religion than on natural selection. He felt that man must continue to struggle in order to advance and that competition should be open. Yet he said the government or laws should not prevent the ‘most able’ from succeeding and having more children. This is more in line with Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” theory and the role of Social Darwinism in human evolution and development of society.
- Reflection of Darwinian racism :- Some scholars suggested that Darwin called attention to hereditarianism and racism in explaining human existence. In explaining sexual selection, Darwin himself had indicated that physical attributions were important for human race to multiply its kind.
- Hierarchy of society :- According to the studies of historian Nancy Stepan, Darwin had talked about the concept of human hierarchy in his theory. In his studies, Darwin had spoken of savages and lower races, people who were not intellectually high as humans. Social Darwinism too believed in the divisions of society — the dominance of the rich over the poor or the whites over the blacks.
- The core idea :- The core concept on which both the two theories stand is that of “natural selection”. While Darwin’s concern was the biological changes that mark evolution and formation of new species, Social Darwinism was the logical consequence of natural selection as it considered the sociological changes including politics, religions, races.
- The role of instincts :- In both the theories, instincts have been given considerable importance in the process of evolution. Instinct is the energy or force that drives any organism to satisfy its needs. Charles Darwin said that it is through the natural instincts that sexual isolation occurs which is responsible for the reproduction of new species. Social Darwinism also emphasized on the role of “social” instincts, which leads to humans competing for gaining supremacy over each other.
“Man accumulates property and bequeaths it to his children, so that the children of the rich have an advantage over the poor in the race for success, independently of bodily or mental superiority. On the other hand, the children of parents who are short-lived, and are therefore on an average deficient in health and vigour, come into their property sooner than other children, and will be likely to marry earlier, and leave a larger number of offspring to inherit their inferior constitutions. But the inheritance of property by itself is very far from an evil; for without the accumulation of capital the arts could not progress; and it is chiefly through their power that the civilised races have extended, and are now everywhere extending their range, so as to take the place of the lower races.”
– Charles Darwin (1871)
It is still debatable if Darwin’s theories, or Darwinism directly corroborates Social Darwinism. However, an important attribute that both these theories share is that of development. Darwin himself cautioned us to not confuse evolution with advancement. Whether it is through natural selection or human competition, surviving against the odds and continuing to co-exist with nature and society would remain key to human existence.